Hello all - just returned from a week's cruise through the Inside Passage. I was aboard the 700 foot Holland American cruise ship. When researching possible birding targets, I was shocked to see how little information was out there. I hope this will help rectify the problem. All numbers are approximate, and I hope I've matched correct birds with the correct days. Given that we were out at sea- it�s difficult to distinguish individual sightings and locations, but I will give my best effort to describe location.
Birding from a cruise ship: is markedly different than a normal pelagic. Due to the immense size of the boat, I was able to use my spotting scope on protected bays, and waves permitting, out in the open ocean. I found the best place to view to be dependent on wind conditions. The bow is optimal, as shearwaters often cross the bow, or are scared up by an oncoming ship. However, travelling at 25 knots, with a 20mph wind coming at you makes standing difficult, and viewing impossible. Next best option is the back of the ship, on the Amsterdam there was a walking loop on the 3rd deck. DO NOT ATTEMPT to bird from the crow's nest or the upper deck. Despite the 360 degree view, you are over a hundred feet in the air, making alcid identification impossible. Get as close as you can to the water, a wide view if preferred but not absolutely necessary. I propped my scope up with a deck chair. It was a bit awkward, but without it I feared it would be hit by a sudden gust and fall over.
Aug 3rd - Seatle Harbor
After flying in and organizing the luggage, I boarded the ship and immediately found plenty of bird-life. Pigeon Guillemots, Heerman's Gulls, as well as the normal assortment of Herring Gulls lined the harbor. A few Bonaparte's, meandered around the harbor. Not too much to report on the way out- many common murres in the channel. I got a quick glimpse at a loon sized bird, but it dove quickly - probably red-throated loon. This would prove to be the only loon for the entire trip.
Aug 4th - West of Vancouver Island.
The distinction between pelagic and non-pelagic birds is very obvious. As soon as we get out into open ocean, past Juan de Fuca straight, the birding picked up significantly. There were helpful monitors on the ship to alert me to the precise location of the boat at all times. These open ocean times are the ones to be focused on. Sooty Shearwaters were in abundance, as were small dark petrels, most likely Leach's, although they stayed well in the distance. Several Black-footed Albatross cruised by, easily distinguished from the shearwaters. Note, the albatrosses displayed far more white above, especially towards the tail than Sibley or National Geographic guides demonstrate. Common Murres consistently popped up, mostly unaffected by the ship. A chunky dark alcid with quick wing beats proved to be Rhino Auklet. Distinguished from puffins by bill-shape and extent of the white below, these large alcids fly very quickly, and don't allow great looks. Overall the introduction to Northern Pacific seabirds required patience and a lot of missed birds.
Aug 5th - Juneau
Not much to say about birding in the capital. I heard from a fellow birder that the Mt Roberts tram ride wasn't worthwhile- guillemots and thousands of bonaparte's gulls in the harbor. On the way out, saw a single Black-Legged Kittiwake. Many humpbacks and Dall's Porpoises were around, but the birding was slow. Weather was difficult, with huge cloud banks obscuring the views intermittently.
Aug-6th - Tracy Arm- Frederick Sound
These sheltered glacier bays provided beautiful scenery. I was hopeful to find multiple types of murrelets. I settled for hundreds of marbled. I saw one Kittlitz's murrlet, i'm sure there were more. They are lighter, and with good light, the white undertail coverts are visible. Identification requires prolonged looks. I believe they take off differently, but I could not find specific and reliable information. Arctic Terns were fairly abundant. As were the usual murres, guillemots, and gulls. New gulls included mew and glaucous-winged, sitting on chunks of ice. Surf Scoters were present in large numbers. On our way out of the sound we passed a huge (perhaps 5,000 birds) colony of alcids and ducks. It was a perhaps 2 miles away, I could see the faintest silhoutes with my scope. A shame we didn't get closer.
Aug 7th - Sitka
Strong Birding in Sitka, went on a guided bird walk. Normal pacific north-west birds: Pac-Slope Flycatcher, Winter Wren, Varied Thrush. Surfbirds and Black-Turnstones were out on small rocks in the harbor. Thousands of Chum salmon waiting to spawn was very impressive, the water was filled with them. Ravens and Herring Gulls fed on the exposed flats. Found a single lesser-yellowlegs as well. Surprisingly few shorebirds.
Later in the day went on a whale-watching and otter boat. A great side trip, a very fast catameran took us out among small islands. We found and closely approached many sea-otters. Also found a pod of humpbacks. Bald Eagles were abundant, as were migrating red-necked pharalopes. Small islands harbored red-faced cormorants, a new bird for me. Rhino Auklets were consistently around. The first tufted puffin buzzed the boat. Even a brief glimpse showed the all dark bird with the oversized bill. On the way back to the ship saw two mammoth stellar's sea lions, the world�s largest species - two males well over 8 feet.
Aug 8th - Ketchikan
Nothing to report Bird-wise in Ketchikan, no sign of ancient murrelet or parakeet auklet.
As we passed out of the Hecate Straight, Pelagic birds immediately appeared in unprecedented numbers. Thousands of sooty-shearwaters were on the water. After careful observation, I found several short-tailed shearwaters. it was really a matter of practice, after looking at hundreds of sooty's, short-tails just appear different. Afternoon light was good, and found thousands of murres, along with small sections of Fork-tailed Storm petrels. Oddly, no albatrosses were seen. I got my first glimpses of what I later confirmed as Flesh-footed and Pink Footed Shearwater, more of them to come the following morning
Aug 9th - Victoria
On the way in and out of Victoria there was the best diversity and numbers of pelagic species. The bow was now accessible since we were now riding with the wind. These was a huge improvement over the back. Another birder from south Texas joined me for a breathtaking 4 hours of pelagic birding. Huge flocks of sooty's gave way to dozens of pink-footed shearwaters. Mixed in were all dark flesh-footed shearwaters. With practice, all these species fly very differently. Red-necked pharalopes were around. Unfortunately, I missed the best bird of the trip: South Polar Skua. My friend, who has previously seen the species in the Gulf told me I missed one come very close to the boat about 10 minutes before I arrived. We had several jeagers throughout the trip, I had a probable parasitic - but with unsatisfactory views. My companion previously saw a pomarine as well. Birding was fast and exciting, never a dull moment. A very light, small shearwater-sized bird darted in and out of the waves. We ran around the deck trying to watch it but it eluded us. Disappointed, we settled for more shearwaters and murres. About twenty minutes later, the mystery bird returned, I got great looks at it, Mottled Petrel. The field-guides disagreed on abundance and even drew them rather differently, but I'm confident given such good views. A Wandering Tattler few over the ship, calling once. As we re-entered Juan de Fuca straight, my friend saw a pod of orcas. My last sighting was a single Cassin's Auklet, which had somehow eluded us the entire trip. The bird dived, but not before I saw the light eye and the chunky gray body, my 14th lifer for the trip.
*Note on Mottled Petrels: High count was one, but i either saw a 2nd, or the first bird disappeared and returned some twenty minutes later. Further investigation has shown that Mottled Petrels are annual birds around Vancouver Island, and it is not the rarity i had originally thought. I did not have a Pelagic field guide, and could only confirm that the petrel did have black below, eliminated cook's.
Leach's Storm Petrel (probable - unlikely any other all dark petrel would have been around in such numbers)
Pacific Slope Flycatcher
Birds Seen by Others: South Polar Skua, Pomarine Jeager